Dallas’ oldest Holocaust survivor ‘had guts’ to make it to 100 years old
By Sharon Wisch-Ray
If there are three words that could sum up Irma Freudenreich’s last century, it may be “I had guts.”
That was a phrase the newly minted centenarian repeated frequently in a conversation with the TJP a few days before her birthday. She turned 100 April 7 and celebrated with family and friends at an open house at her Preston Hollow home.
Irma explained that she was the youngest of six children born in Lobsens, Germany, now part of Poland, to Frieda and Abraham Herzfeld. Her father worked in a brick factory. As the situation in Germany worsened for the Jews, Irma, her sister Ruth and one of her brothers moved to Lodz in 1939. Irma got word that her mother wanted her help and she should return to Lobsen.
When she arrived she learned that both her parents had been murdered by Nazis in the woods near their home.
Irma returned to the family home and rescued family heirlooms and silver. She hid below the seats of a train. After four weeks of varied travel she returned to Lodz. During part of that travel, she jumped from a train before it pulled into the station to avoid discovery. “I don’t know how I did that,” she told the TJP, “…but I had guts.”
By December, the Jews were confined to the ghetto in Lodz. Irma and her sister lived in the ghetto for four years. There, Irma met Izy whom she would marry after the war. In October 1944, Irma, her sister, Izy and his parents were forced onto a cattle car and taken to Auschwitz.
When they arrived at Auschwitz, Irma said that there was no room for them in the barracks. It was winter, and they slept outside on the ground until other women inside died creating space for them indoors.
As the end of the war approached, Irma, her sister Ruth and Izy’s mother were forced on the Death March to Bergen Belsen. The trio contracted typhus. Bergen Belsen was liberated April 15, 1945. Sadly Izy’s mother died four days later.
Irma told how Izy had been at Dachau and when the camp was liberated May 2, he found a bicycle and began riding from camp to camp in search of his mother and Irma. He finally arrived at Bergen Belsen June 26. Irma and Izy were reunited and married July 1 by a rabbi at the camp.
From the camp, Irma, Izy and Ruth hitchhiked to Hamburg, Germany. Irma became pregnant. She learned that her brother Ernst was in a “spy camp” in Russia. Irma traveled there while she was 4 months pregnant with her daughter Tonika. She said, “I asked the guards if my brother was there. When they said yes, I asked if we could go to lunch and I would bring him back afterward.” Irma explained that once Ernst was with her, they boarded a train and never looked back. She had arranged for papers for Ernst. “I told him not to say a single word. I had guts.”
The family immigrated to the United States in 1950 through the port in New Orleans. Irma had an uncle living in Fort Worth, so the family settled in the area. They became members of Shearith Israel, where Irma is still a member.
Izy worked for a garment cutter and eventually took it over building it into a thriving business with more than 400 workers.
Irma and Izy had a second daughter in 1953. Anita was born premature and lost her sight as an infant. Irma dedicated her life to making sure Anita got the proper education and training. She left home after graduation from Hillcrest High School and went to a school for the blind. “It was hard for me to let her go, but I knew I had to,” said Irma, making reference to the fact that it takes guts to let someone you love leave.
Anita has been married for 29 years to Emil and had a successful career at the medical center in Houston. She now is a cantorial soloist. She, her husband and her guide dog Magee were in town for Irma’s birthday celebration.
“My mother is an inspiration to me,” said Anita. “With everything she’s endured, it’s amazing that she’s 100 today.”
Irma lost Izy in 1974 and Tonika in 1985.
In addition to owning her own business after Izy died, Irma became an avid volunteer with Jewish Family Service and Lighthouse for the Blind among other organizations. The wall of her home office is filled with thank yous from the various organizations she’s served. “I worked for JFS for more than 30 years,” she said.
Irma says she is not embittered by the hardships that she has faced throughout her life. It is important that I tell my story she says. And in fact, just a couple of weeks before her birthday, she did just that to several hundred students at Ursuline Academy.
“I had guts,” she said.